trading for stubbed toes

Every kid… every southern kid… knows how it feels to burn the soft pads of her feet on black asphalt in the summer. It’s a rite of passage, a lesson we all learned by our own pain, not from verbal warnings. No one can tell her how the blisters will feel. No one can properly describe how she’ll wish she could crawl everywhere until they heal. She’ll see the steaming ground and believe she’s just fast enough to race across the street, and make it, before the tender skin begins to burn. She’ll be wrong. We were all wrong about it once… the stubborn among us were wrong far more than once.

I broke my first bone when I was twenty. Up to that point the worst physical pain I knew was stubbed toes. I spent a good portion of my childhood summers nursing stubbed toes. By nursing, I really mean slapping a band-aid on them and pretending they didn’t exist. Stubbed toes came with the territory for all the kids who grew up with memberships to Triangle swim club. The community pool (which no longer exists) was converted from a camp for boys into the greatest summer oasis a kid could imagine. It had two giant pools, slides, diving boards, and friends… always friends. The majority of my closest childhood pals were either members or regular visitors. Most of us were on the swim team for the better part of a decade. Most of us ran around with big toes that were in some stage of recovery from the last time we’d rushed up the concrete hill.

The hill was the only accessible path from pool to playground. Triangle had a playground with trampolines where no one cared if you flipped. It had seesaws you could sit your wet bathing suit butt on and ride while your best friend laughed, too hard to speak, on the other end. There were basketball goals and shuffleboard courts, sand volleyball and tennis. Triangle swim club was a mecca of everything kids loved and not enough time to squeeze it all in without running. We went for the pool, but we knew every hour there’d be 10 minutes  when the lifeguards needed a break and we’d have to hit the snack bar for a quick freeze pop, then rush up the hill to get the best of whichever activity called us in that moment. We ran, with total disregard for the adults who suggested otherwise, up the hill as quickly as we could. We gambled every day, and some days we lost. We ended up crouched on the ground clutching our feet and wondering how one false step could rip the entire end of our toe off. We’d make teary-eyed promises not to run on the concrete anymore, then we’d do it again as soon as the scab healed.

When you’re a kid, physical pain is much scarier than emotional pain. You get your feelings hurt by a friend, and your parents help you work it out. You make up, hug, and hop back on the see-saw. When you’re a kid scraping your knee in a brutal rollerblade spill is what makes you cry like you’ll never walk again. Getting hit in the face by a softball because you misjudged a pop-fly will make your face swell up, and your 11 year old heart certain you’ll never feel anything worse… but you will.

You’ll feel worse physical pain, later in life, and it’ll come from emotional mistakes. You’ll feel like you’ve been punched in the face and kicked in the guts when you do something that hurts someone you never wanted to hurt. You’ll feel absolutely sick to your stomach when you realize that you’ve made a false step and it can’t be undone. You’ll wish, with everything you have, that the pain would dial back to the way it was when you were making teary-eyed promises to just walk up the hill next time. You’ll wish you could trade the heartache for a chunk out of your big toe… because you know how fast that heals. You know that in a week it’ll scab over, and a few days after that it’ll be good as new.

But that’s not how adulthood works. The lessons, the things you really need to learn in life, sometimes have to really hurt. They have to feel like you’ve jumped in the ring with a world class boxer, and the crowd is made entirely of your personified inner critics. They’re shouting everything you’ve done wrong while Pacquiao throws punches. The lessons that really help you grow, don’t have an estimated healing time. They just knock you the hell out, watch you cry, and challenge you to pick yourself back up when you’re ready. They force you to stand up and carry yourself to the place where you reevaluate and become better, the place where you learn the move that will block Pacquiao’s next punch… or, if you’re lucky, the place that will remind you what you did wrong before you even step in the ring next time.

I’ve burned the bottoms of my feet on asphalt more times than I’d like to admit. I was never one for learning quick lessons when it came to physical pain. I never doubted my ability to make it across the street before the burns set in, but I know there are some pains I can’t outrun. And for those lessons, I’m damned grateful… even if it’s really difficult to admit it.

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